My public health career experience: following the unknown path to knowledge translation

Lately, I’ve been asked the question, “So how did you get into knowledge translation?”

Sometimes, this is followed up by, “What’s your training in?”

And, almost always it is peers in public health who are intrigued. After all, we both have public health degrees, but how did I end up where I am?

The answer to that question usually goes like this: “I have a degree in public health and completed training in knowledge translation (KT).”

But that doesn’t fully answer the question—after all, how did I even know this field existed, let alone how to enter it?

When I entered the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at the University of Guelph in 2008, KT was a not a formal part of our training (things have changed since). Further, of all the traditional career paths in public health that I learned about— “Knowledge translation practitioner/specialist” wasn’t one of them. And if you had asked me when I entered the program what my career aspirations were, out of sheer ignorance of the field, becoming a KT practitioner would not have been my response.

So here is the more complete answer to how I found myself working in the important field of KT.

When I was completing my undergraduate degree, I was intent on applying to medical school. For as long as I could remember, my interests were in health and helping others, so a medical degree seemed to be a natural fit. I volunteered and worked in hospitals and I learned all I could about medical school applications and the admissions test.

I purposely chose my undergraduate degree, and consequently the University I attended, based on these career interests. Other than the beautiful campus (which was a huge draw) I was particularity drawn to the University of Guelph’s Biomedical Sciences program for their human anatomy course, as it provided students with the opportunity to dissect a cadaver—a privilege and a unique experience. As an aspiring future physician, such a course was quite appealing. I didn’t realize that it would end up being another course in this program that was the real career changer for me.

Fast forward to the third year of my undergraduate degree when I took my first Epidemiology course (which was required as part of my program). Admittedly, it was a subject area I didn’t know anything about and yet it became one of my favourite courses. It was this introductory course that set me on a path to thinking outside of medicine and towards population health. This newly piqued interest in epidemiology and my curiosity to learn more about research led to more coursework in both these areas. The result? Applying to and earning an MPH degree.

My peers from MPH programs went directly to work in public health or to continue training for a specific public health role. Their “traditional” public health roles included health promoter, policy analyst, epidemiologist, public health physician, public health nurse, etc. Some of them knew their ultimate paths going into the program. I didn’t. I was so intrigued by everything we learned in the MPH program and all the public health disciplines that I still wasn’t sure which one I wanted to focus in on. And that is how I started to take the unknown path to KT.

I took the first interesting job opportunity that came my way as a program coordinator for a new program. The role was not a “traditional” public health role and at the time felt like I wasn’t using my public health skills. My manager promised me that I was learning valuable skills that would be transferable in anything that I do — she was right.

This job certainly supported an important public health initiative (primary care and cancer screening), taught me a great deal, provided growth opportunities and importantly, exposed me to KT. To be honest, I didn’t completely understand KT during this period. However, during my time with this program, I had the opportunity to conduct some collaborative work with others from a program-area focused on KT and my interest grew. I found myself later working with this group in a position with a KT focus. I learned even more, received training opportunities in KT and met practitioners in the field. And when my current role was posted, which combined my interests in epidemiology, KT, research and evaluation, I applied.

When I interviewed for this role I was asked, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

I said, “I see myself working in public health in Ontario….what that looks like exactly, I don’t know, but as long as that’s what I’m doing, I’m happy.” Based on my almost six years of work experience at the time, my answer was earnest. Although sometimes unsettling, I realized the benefit of not knowing exactly what I wanted to do meant I was open to new opportunities. After all, the very role I was applying to certainly didn’t exist when I graduated, it emerged based on the needs of the organization. And if I wasn’t open to what may come, I wouldn’t have found myself in this role.

And just like how an organization evolves, I believe our public health needs will evolve and that will be reflected in the job force. There will likely be new job opportunities for public health practitioners — ones that do not exist now. I learned in my experience that as long as I know what my ultimate goal is, it is ok if I don’t know exactly what that looks like in terms of a position.

In fact, this way of thinking led me to work in an exciting field that I feel I belong in—one that I didn’t even know existed when I graduated! I didn’t realize it back then, but I was always on the right path, it was just unknown.

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